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Activism is Half the Battle: The Need for Clean Energy Policymakers

keystone xl protestIn February, thousands of people rallied against the Keystone XL pipeline. From my place on the sidelines, this moment was reminiscent of powerful images in political history; spanning the civil rights movement, women’s suffrage, and the Vietnam protests. The societal pressure that these movements exercise was surely a serious driver in the policy changes that followed—how could a country founded on a republic notion of governance ignore vocal pleas for action from such numbers?

But eventually, the crowds dissipated from the National Mall. The lawn was left empty, with caution tape and plastic bottles strewn about as the last echoes of the rally had faded hours before. Tourists start to gather for photographs, people in suits find benches and eat their lunches. Elsewhere, of course, the movement is alive and well, organizing, planning, and continuing their efforts. But in the White House, the Capitol building, and inside the think tanks, universities, and consulting firms that influence the policy debate, it is back to business-as-usual.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am a staunch supporter of the activist community, and a vocal proponent of the fight against climate change. I fundamentally disagree with the idea that there is a wrong battle in this war, and think that the Keystone XL movement has galvanized a truly formidable and worthwhile coalition of activists. But everyone has a place in the ecosystem of the climate fight, and my concern is that the passion that I have seen young people channel so well in activism has not developed an equivalent counterpart in the young policy community. And in the movement to combat climate change, this counterpart is essential.

Because when the music is over, and the battle is won, someone inside has to make it work. And, although I hope this isn’t the case, if the battle is lost– the “inside game” will become even more important. In either case, pressure for change must come from both the outside and from within.

The sheer numbers of young people involved in policy in DC would make this community a powerful force. As anyone who has worked in a Washington institution (or seen In the Loop) will tell you, the importance of young staffers in the DC scene is awe inspiring. Driving through the city at lunchtime, it can be shocking how many people you see in suits, clearly under-30, and in much more of a rush then seems reasonable. As you would imagine, the pressure to perform in these early-days jobs is intense. Being successful requires becoming very well-versed in the issues, very quickly. The bottom line is that high caliber work is expected, and the cohort of younger folks forms the lifeblood of many powerful DC institutions—although the face and voice of these institutions are composed of much more well-known figures.

As a result of this dynamic, young people have to be very quick on their feet or get left behind. Careening down the learning curve is a prerequisite for success. Part of this process, though, requires learning tools, approaches, and ways of thinking that mirror the organization or individual you work for so that you can do the job right, and do it quickly. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it certainly locks in the status quo.

Energy policy is no exception to this rule. This learning process tends to reinforce existing ways of thinking about and approaching problems within the energy system. The unique view that an outsider to the issue may bring, while uninformed about the inner mechanics and finer details, often sparks new ways of solving problems that would not have occurred otherwise. Further, these new ways of looking at things may run counter to the dominant narrative.

I won’t belabor this point (Thomas Kuhn has already done that at length, albeit with much more talk of hydrogen) and the prevalence of the phrase “paradigm shift” in our vernacular certainly shows that this isn’t a new idea to most people. But the practical application of this concept to the role of young people in dealing with climate and energy does deserve a few words.

Washington DC is a very complex network of relationships between many experts who are the best-and-brightest on specific concepts. In many ways, this ecosystem of specialists is the byproduct of a large, bureaucratic governance system that requires a lot of people to each know a lot of things about a little part of the bigger picture. Energy policy has functioned within this system the same as other policy fields, with small gains and losses over the years—driven by markets and political maneuvering. Every once in a while, an area will have a sudden and disruptive change, but energy policy has not done so yet.

Sadly, the status quo just isn’t good enough anymore. Climate change has changed the game. Energy policy is an essential and non-negotiable tool in mitigating and adapting to this existential threat, and the small bore solutions that have chronically accompanied business-as-usual cannot continue. It doesn’t matter what the past has shown, continuing down this path will inflict real suffering and damages. The political dilemma is obvious, current politicians are not elected by future generations.

This is a widely-shared (so, not terribly interesting) view. But, it has very important implications for the next generation. The young people getting involved in policy today will be the ones making decisions in ten to fifteen years, right as some of the worst impacts of climate change take hold. So how should they prepare?

Getting young people involved in clean energy policy in a new and different way is not just a feel-good enterprise: it is a requirement for ensuring the transition to a clean energy economy and dealing with climate change. Young people need to find a way to incubate their creativity and look at problems in with a novice’s eye and an expert’s skill. Unfortunately, while our education and career systems hone people into specialties, this is sometimes at the expense of facilitating dialogue with other disciplines.

This is particularly essential for tackling climate change. Creating a low-carbon economy is a political challenge. It is also an engineering challenge, and economic challenge, a communications challenge, and a business challenge. No single approach or actor can take this on: and solutions that incorporate an understanding of all these elements will yield the most success. Because younger people will be disproportionately affected by climate change, they have more of an incentive than any other generation to try new approaches and buck convention.

Practically speaking, this involves both fearlessly putting bold ideas on the table that may be dead wrong, and asking for help in seeing a new angle on an issue that requires admitting you don’t know everything. Both are challenging propositions- particularly for young people trying to make it in a town that defers to low-risk, high-exposure, fully-baked ideas that have good optics. But frankly, the solutions to climate change may not be low-risk, high-exposure, or fully-baked right away. And they may not look great, or have political cover. But if young people can find the courage to break away from convention and still know how to get the wonky details of policy done, I think we have a shot.

This Thursday will be the first session of the Clean Energy Leadership Institute, an organization designed to begin addressing this challenge by providing young people with a forum to learn the mechanics of policy while fostering cross-cutting perspectives and developing a faith in their own thinking. Training a new generation of policymakers, who understand the need for these interdisciplinary solutions, will ensure that in ten years—the junior staffers of today can be ready to solve the problems of tomorrow. This is just a drop in the bucket, but hopefully it can spark something that allows the young people involved in policy to become a force greater than the sum of their parts.

Discussions

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J Elliott's picture
J Elliott on Apr 17, 2013

Very interesting post.  Yes, the next generation must thoroughly educate themselves on the many complexities of politics, business, energy, climate change and how to influence future clean energy policy.  What’s missing in your description is the need for a fundamental education and working knowledge of the economy and economics that can substantially constrain creative and innovative thought and ideas on dealing with solutions to climate change and other social priorities.  It’s the young generation that faces the highest level of unemployment today and must eventually deal with the out of control government deficit spending and growing debt for providing possibly unsustainable support for a continuously growing and increasingly aging populous.   The existing leadership and political party in control appears to only delay the tough decisions and may be setting up the current younger generation for an economic catastrophe to deal with in addition to climate change.

Randy Voges's picture
Randy Voges on Apr 18, 2013

Energy policy is no exception to this rule. This learning process tends to reinforce existing ways of thinking about and approaching problems within the energy system. The unique view that an outsider to the issue may bring, while uninformed about the inner mechanics and finer details, often sparks new ways of solving problems that would not have occurred otherwise. Further, these new ways of looking at things may run counter to the dominant narrative.

The trouble with this line of thinking is that it dances around the fact that “existing ways of thinking” about energy are rooted in mature technology.  The desire for a paradigm shift is understandable, but anybody that is “uninformed about the inner mechanics” can look forward to an unexpected and unwanted lesson in energy fundamentals, especially the laws of thermodynamics. 

Adam James's picture

Thank Adam for the Post!

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